All eyes were on the 26th state Sunday afternoon for Big Ten NCAA Tournament action.
Heading into Sunday’s round-of-32 matchups, the questions were simple: Can Michigan keep it going? Can Tom Izzo Tom Izzo once again in March?
Michigan proved it’s more than just a Cinderella team, more than just a Big Ten Tournament champion. The Wolverines are the real deal, and they’re here to dance.
Michigan State, on the other hand, couldn’t sustain the firepower of the ridiculous Kansas back court, and the Spartans were bounced pre-Sweet 16 for the second straight season.
Here are some thoughts from Sunday’s up-and-down day for the Mitten State.
1. Upperclassmen guards win in March.
Upperclassmen. Steady guards. Three-point shooting. Michigan has the key pieces that typically win in March and they needed those pieces Sunday in a comeback 73-69 win over Louisville. None of those pieces have been more crucial than the play from a tested back court.
Aside from the 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats, look back at some of the rosters of National Championship teams over the past five tournaments:
- 2012-13 Louisville — Russ Smith (junior guard), Luke Hancock (redshirt junior guard), Peyton Siva (senior guard)
- 2013-14 Connecticut — Ryan Boatright (junior guard), Shabazz Napier (senior guard)
- 2014-15 Duke — Quinn Cook (senior guard)
- 2015-16 Villanova — Josh Hart (junior guard), Ryan Arcidiacono (senior guard)
Sure, all those teams had plenty of blue chip underclassmen, but they rode the shoulders of their upperclassmen guards.
Michigan senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. finished with just 10 points on an ugly 3 of 13 day. But he added seven rebounds, six assists and, most importantly, zero turnovers. He added a scooping layup over Louisville’s 6-7 forward Deng Adel in the closing seconds, Michigan’s most critical basket of the night. Fellow senior Zak Irvin chipped in 11 points on 5 of 9 shooting.
That’s not to say that their aren’t other teams with strong upperclassmen back courts who were sent home early — Middle Tennessee, for example. Although, there is a strong argument that it needed its experienced back court to get as far as it did.
A senior back court doesn’t always equate to Sweet 16, Elite 8 and Final Four berths, but it’s a start. It’s definitely been the most dominating part of Michigan’s run over the past two weeks and will be critical for the Wolverines to keep the season going.
2. Can Purdue keep up with Kansas?
Speaking of experienced back courts, none are scarier than that of the Kansas Jayhawks. Michigan State had no idea how to contain the Kansas guards in Sunday’s 90-70 loss. Actually, maybe the team had an idea; the Spartans just had no way of implementing it.
Critics have worried if Kansas’ lack of size would hurt it down the stretch, but it wasn’t much of an issue Sunday. The Jayhawks gave up 35 points to Michigan State’s dynamic post duo of Nick Ward and Miles Bridges, but the starting Kansas guards accounted for 70 of Kansas’ 90 points.
After Michigan State cut the game to 1 in the second half, the Jayhawks began to bury the Spartans with a barrage of 3’s, drives to the baskets and easy lobs inside for flushes. Combine all that with Kansas’ ability to turn turnovers into breakaway baskets, and it became a shootout that Michigan State simply didn’t belong in.
Now, with a Sweet 16 matchup between Kansas and Big Ten champion Purdue looming, the battle comes down to the Jayhawks’ guards vs. Caleb Swanigan.
Swanigan was a beast against undersized Iowa State Saturday, and he’s even more of a mis-match for Kansas than was Ward and Bridges. Add in 7-footer Isaac Haas, and Kansas has some real issues in the post.
But will that be enough?
Even with Swanigan’s 20 and Haas’ 14 against Iowa State, the Cyclones’ starting guards went off for 68 and kept the game very close down the stretch. Kansas’ back court is even deadlier, and the Jayhawks proved Sunday that they’re going to force teams to fill up the scoring column in order to beat them.
Swanigan and Haas can have monster games, but Purdue’s guards are going to be asked to do more than they’ve done all year. Even if they slow Kansas down, they’re going to have to score. We haven’t seen much of that this season.
With Michigan State’s season ending Sunday, it’ll be interesting to see how Izzo rebuilds for next year, especially with the likely loss of Bridges to the NBA. As mentioned earlier, the Spartans were bounced in the opening weekend each of the last two years, an odd occurrence for the guru of March.
Izzo has already remarked on his slight regrets for the team’s brutal non-conference schedule, but Michigan State still made a solid run and kept up with Kansas for much of Sunday’s matchup. Really, it came down to the lack of horses for Michigan State.
The recruiting class and offseason adjustments will become way more critical than Michigan State’s schedule if the Spartans want to get back to pushing their season into April.
For Michigan, the ceiling is as high as it wants it to be. The team had Sweet-16-and-beyond potential all season but played more disappointing than impressive. Well, until recently. The Wolverines have found their groove and much like the previously mentioned Jayhawks, Michigan is going to make teams score with them in order to have a chance.
The all-around play of the Wolverines has sent two good teams packing, and if they can keep it up, more water-gun fights are in store for Beilein’s bunch.